Monday, June 06, 2005

The Deed of Paksenarrion: Sheepfarmer's Daughter by Elizabeth Moon


There are Men in Middle-Earth, even though Tolkein's stories center on Hobbits and Elves. Elizabeth Moon takes that rich tapestry of orcs, Elves, dark sorcery, and high chivalry to a new place with the trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion.

The first book, Sheepfarmer's Daughter, introduces us to Paksenarrion, a tall girl who has wider goals than an arranged marriage with a local pig farmer. She's heard that some mercenary companies hire women as fighters, and she dreams of being a soldier, so she steals her grandfather's sword, and slips away in the middle of the night to find the recruiters.

Paks, as she decides to be called, seems to be a typical recruit in the Red Duke's company. She may be more determined, slightly stronger, a bit more focused than most, but she is still raw and naive. She needs to learn the tricks of fighting with the company.

But there is also something special about her, something that calls to Duke Phelan to be a better leader and a better man. That same thing brings Paks to the attention of an evil power, which begins to move against her in subtle ways. Paks is attacked by a veteran, and the incident nearly gets her drummed out of the company. Part of a detachment sent to relieve a castle from the sorcerous Siniava, Paks is stabbed with a poisoned knife; only a blessed medallion and a sorcerous healing save her life.

Each new near-miss on her life raises more questions. Is Paks the focus of evil because she is evil herself? Or is there a different reason Siniava's minions are determined to take her out?

The story is thrilling, and Paks is an intriguing character. Perhaps because she is female, her introspection rings true, and that constant inward questioning is an important part of the story. Her determination to be a good soldier, and her athletic and mental abilities, all contribute to her success; but in the end, it's Paks' refusal to rest on her laurels or take the easy path that makes her so likeable.

Moon writes sword-play and military matters equally well—doubtless because her own Marine Corps experience shines through. We understand through Paks the need for boot camp; we feel the gradual diminishing of confusion as the new recruits learn to work together; we thrill with Paks as she is promoted, and quake with her as she faces her first battle.

By using the ready-to-hand Tolkein milieu, Moon acquires a well-understood universe of good and evil—then she builds upon that platform with a solid sense of how men might have lived in that land of dwarves, goblins and Elven mysteries. The novel reads more like modern war fiction than sword-and-sorcery, however; despite the magical elements, Paks must succeed without any deus ex machina salvation. She is a real person; she scars and bleeds in equal measure with her triumphs.

Sheepfarmer's Daughter stands well on its own. It also, as the opening volume of a trilogy, contains many elements that serve to foretell later adventures for Paksenarron. Either way, this is a book to read and reread, with great enjoyment. It's that good.

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